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🗣️ "Time for WASH in America"


Photo by Mélissa Jeanty / Unsplash

Table of Contents

Host: Travis Loop
Guest: George McGraw | Founder & CEO | DigDeep
Category: 🗣️ Opinion

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[5:37] “It's at least 2.2 million [people in the US without water and sanitation] by the last most accurate count we had. But that count isn't super accurate. That's using census data from the American community and American housing survey. […] These folks without access to water and sanitation […] live in all 50 states. But we know that they live inside populations that are traditionally hard to count populations, meaning […] census tends to under count these communities. So the number is likely much higher. And that doesn't count the 44 million more, who maybe have access to running water, a working sink, a working shower, a flush toilet, but the water coming out of their tap isn't safe to drink, doesn't meet basic EPA standards. So that's really the human face of this problem: At least 2.2 million people all over the country who wake up every day and have to collect water outside their home because they don't even have basic plumbing, and 44 million more who maybe have basic plumbing but can't trust it to be safe.”

[6:47] “Our work started with DigDeep here in the US on the Navajo Nation, which is the country's largest reservation. Indigenous folks are 19 times more likely than white families in the US not to have running water. There's definitely a racial justice aspect to this work. Black and Latino families are twice as likely as white families not to have running water. So indigenous nations are [a] big one. The largest concentration is in Alaska, with Alaskan Natives, second largest is down in the southwest on the Navajo Nation and then other reservations across the country. Other hotspots where we work, or have partners doing work would be along the US Mexico border, especially in Texas and what are called colonias, or irregular communities where people have mostly handled their dwellings over the last few generations. We see pockets of what we call water poverty in the deep south, in rural counties of Mississippi and Alabama, especially where people can't flush their toilets. We see it in some peri-urban areas outside of San Francisco, certainly homeless populations. We see that in California Central Valley in Puerto Rico, in Appalachia […]. This is something that [a great] amount of Americans are facing or will face soon as more and more infrastructure falls offline because of the lack of investment we've made over the last 100 years.”

[8:30] “We're a human rights organization. I really firmly believe that access to water and sanitation is a basic human right. And so it's not just a nice thing to have that a nice organization might come along and help you get. This is a human rights issue. It's a justice issue. Every American deserves access to running water and sanitation. And we made massive investments to make that real for some communities, while at the same time ignoring others. And those communities tend to be rural, they tend to be low income, they tend to be communities of color. So writing this wrong is not a matter of just coming up with a technical solution or doing a nice thing for somebody. It's not charity, it's a human rights issue.”

[9:37] “[Some people say,] water is a public good. [If] it's something you have to pay for, how can it be a human right? I mean, many things protected as human rights involve you paying for them. So that's not a really big issue. But to those folks who challenged me on that I say, […] you should be on board with us defending this as a human right now, because there will be a time in the future where you too will be impacted by this, because of things like climate change and because of the way money flows. And it is likely that many, many more tens or maybe even hundreds of millions of Americans will face water scarcity in the future. And I think it's really important now to get clear on the fact that water and sanitation is a basic human right, and to protect it that way for folks. […] Having water is the thing that allows you to go to school and pursue an education, it allows you to keep a job, it allows you to stay healthy, certainly to keep your hands clean, and to keep your loved ones safe during a pandemic. It's even the thing that allows you just to have time to play with your kids. If you don't have running water at home, you spend all your time trying to collect it from outside the house, dealing with the indignity of it, the disease that comes with it. And no one, especially in United States, should have to face that reality on a daily basis.”

[11:45] “The heart of our work our community led water access projects, which we call our place based work. And that's the stuff that people know us for the most. […] Those are the projects like the Navajo water project, which installs off grid systems and remote Navajo homes that are filled by truck by community members. And so those community members get the same hot and cold running water that you and I get through water lines, but through a system that their community owns and manages and works there, were waterlines are impossible. Other work we do in that pillar […] would be like the Appalachia water project, which will bring hot and cold running water lines to 150 families in Appalachia this year alone in West Virginia. […] Almost 40% of our staff here at dig deep, have lived or currently live without running water at home. So this is like deeply personal work for us.

[12:49] “But one little organization like us, we're not going to be able to solve this problem for the 2.2 million Americans by ourselves, certainly not in a short amount of time. And this is really urgently needed. So we have three other pillars of our work that are aimed at solving that problem more quickly. The first is research or […] evidence based collection. So we do studies […] that identify that there are 2.2 million Americans without access to running water. And we're also doing studies on […] the economic impact of this work. If we give water to somebody, if we spend $1 on that work, how many dollars do we get back in education and job creation and life expectancy? We do research on new technologies for places where traditional water and sanitation infrastructure won't work. […] What are those off grid solutions? What are those solar powered solutions? What are those new inventions that we can bring to market.”

[13:47] “Then we do strategic communications and sector building work. The communications work is really storytelling, […] raising the visibility of this issue by empowering communities to tell their own stories. […] And the work that I am really leading is work to build the domestic WASH sector, our fourth pillar. […] We've been solving water and sanitation challenges with some degree of success for people in other countries for more than 60 years now. And we've invested hundreds of billions of US dollars in doing that work abroad. And it's really important work. And one of the things we've learned throughout that process is that by creating mechanisms for coordination, we can achieve more more quickly and the quality of that work is going to be better. […] We don't have a similar sector in the US that's really representative of and responsible for these outcomes on the ground. We leave that all to the federal government. And right now, the federal government isn't keeping up their end of the bargain. […] I really firmly believe that we need a sector to keep government motivated to keep communities front and center to experiment. And push the envelope and show that things like the Navajo water project or the Appalachia water project are possible. And so that involves helping organizations, companies, funders, who may not even see themselves as part of the sector right now. Imagine their work in a new way, and build connections between them so that we can start to coordinate.”

[18:50] “Navajo got hit, probably worse than anywhere else in the country in terms of hospitalizations and deaths per capita by COVID. And a lot of that is because 30% of the population doesn't have a sink or toilet at home. […] They were constantly forced to break social isolation to collect water, often at grocery stores or gas stations, places they'd be in touch with other folks. And you can imagine too that if you've grown up without access to basic tools for public health, like running water, you're also probably facing some chronic health issues that might make you more susceptible to disease.”

[19:52] “What we've focused on on the Navajo water project […] has been emergency COVID relief for the last 18 months. In the very first days of the pandemic, we mobilized to get almost 2 million pounds of bottled water out to about 30,000 people so that they could stay home for those initial weeks where we didn't know what was going on. And we quickly followed that up with a project to bring temporary 275 gallon water storage tanks to […] almost 1500 homes that we've kept with clean drinking water through our network of water trucks through the course of the entire pandemic […]. Just now we're sort of turning our attention back to more permanent work: hot and cold running water and solar power in folks’ houses. […] We were part of a larger collective effort called the water access Coordination Group on Navajo that's been tremendously successful. And there have been some silver linings like increased coordination and data sharing and new relationships from that work. But […] I wish we didn't have to go through what we've been through to get there. […] And I'm hoping that the attention that the pandemic brought to some of these water and sanitation challenges will also be with us for a long time.”

Rating: 💧💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 32 min | 🗓️ 09/28/2021
✅ Time saved: 29 min

Additional Links:
”The United States Needs Its Own WASH Sector”